Prince William County supervisors have long had access to so-called “discretionary” funds, dollars board members can spend on office staff as well as outside organizations and charities without going through the usual budget procedures.
It’s a privilege no other elected official has in Northern Virginia, and it’s one that outside skeptics are continuing to question in the wake of a controversial would-be donation from Supervisor W.S. “Wally” Covington III (R-Brentsville) to his wife’s charity. In November, Covington sought to donate $100,000 to Rainbow Therapeutic Equestrian Center, a nonprofit run by his wife, Connie.
After Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) objected, Covington withdrew the donation.
But that conversation has left many asking whether supervisors should have access to taxpayer dollars to spend on favorite causes, even if they do good work in the community.
That was the question in front of a group of panelists hosted by the Prince William Committee of 100 at the Four Points by Sheraton in Manassas on Thursday. Principi joined Michael W. Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy; John S. Gray, a former supervisor candidate and budget committee member; and nonprofit advocate Paul C. Moessner.
Thompson was the panel’s chief critic of the practice, saying that even if supervisors spend dollars allocated to their offices on worthy causes, the public will always be skeptical of politicians’ motivations.
“People simply believe that politicians set up systems to take personal advantage,” Thompson said. “This policy oozes with the potential of misuse of public funds.”
Supervisors, except for the board chairman, are allocated an average of $335,000 per office, according to county spokesman Jason Grant. That money is generally used on supervisors’ office expenses but any unused money is considered “discretionary” and can be donated to charities or used for other purposes.
County supervisors must follow the county’s procurement procedures, but they have discretion on how to allocate funding.
Principi said he spends just 3 percent of the money on outside nonprofits — most of the money, he said, is allocated for office costs to serve his constituents.
Principi said supervisors are able to respond quickly to county emergencies. Last September, supervisors were able to dip into those funds to react quickly after floods inundated Holly Acres Mobile Home Park last year, leaving dozens homeless.
Moessner, who serves on the board of food pantry and social service nonprofit Action in Community Through Service, said the amount of money supervisors can allocate is small compared to the size of the county budget. Those dollars do a lot of good for cash-strapped charities. “I think that’s a lot of positive value coming from a very small piece of the pie,” Moessner said.
Gray, a C.P.A. who has long served on county budget committees, said supervisors are allowed to carry over unspent funds from the year before. That’s something no other county agency can regularly do. He said that process also is not transparent because those funds don’t appear on budget documents from year to year.
As individual supervisors amass funds in discretionary accounts, those dollars could be considered to lower the real-estate tax rate or increase teacher salaries, he said.
He also criticized supervisors’ Transportation Road Improvement Project (TRIP) funds that are allocated to each supervisor to spend on transportation projects of their choosing.
Principi said he is looking to use his TRIP funds to install sidewalks and trails near hard-to-traverse Route 1. “In that regard, I believe these funds actually provide us with a good reputation,” he said.
Committee of 100 members seemed less than convinced.
“It’s an abuse of taxpayer funds, and it reeks of lack of transparency,” said Jeanine Lawson, a Republican who attended the panel discussion. “No matter how you argue it, they stand to gain from it.”